Stress can seem like an inevitable consequence of a fast-paced work environment. However, when it reaches chronic levels, it can result in what the World Health Organization describes as an “occupational hazard” known as burnout.

In the latest ICD-11 the WHO defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. The World Economic Forum estimates the syndrome is costing the global economy US$322 billion annually.

The WHO’s classification sharpens the focus for employers on “the ramifications of failing to ensure a psychologically safe work environment and/or failing to monitor the psychological health of employees”.

Burnout affects about 5-7 per cent of the working population, according to Michael Leiter, professor of industrial and organisational psychology at Deakin University. Leiter explains that it is difficult to say if the condition is on the rise, since burnout has not been tracked over time, and is likely to be hidden in the “mental stress” category of workers’ compensation claims.

Burnout is now occurring in a broader range of sectors. “There has always been burnout in certain industries, such as the caring professions or first responders – police or emergency medicos – but it is now moving into other industries, including professional services.”

Workload, constant change and workers feeling misunderstood by senior managers are common complaints.

Occupational hazards

Improving a person’s ability to manage stress and build resilience can help, but it is only half of the solution.

Organisational factors that are known to increase workplace stress include high demand, especially when combined with inadequate reward or recognition; low autonomy; inadequate resources to do your job; unsupportive relationships with managers or colleagues; a lack of clarity about your role; poorly managed change; and organisational injustice, where processes aren’t fair or respectful.

Other workplace stressors employees can experience include being forced to work in open-plan offices, even when conducting sensitive, confidential conversations with clients; losing administrative support or battling with technology systems that are not properly tailored for the job.

How employers can help

Organisations have a corporate social responsibility to minimise the harm that comes from the intensification of work that is so common in workplaces today.

The organisation can establish its organisational performance expectations, then give this to employees, asking, ‘How do you think you can achieve this without burning out?’. Employees then have the opportunity to identify changes to the system that would help them achieve a sustainable level of performance. This could relate to job design, performance appraisal or reward and recognition, for example.

Leaders and managers can be reluctant to consult employees about what they need. They often state that they know what their workers will say – that they need more resources – and the workplace can’t provide that, so they don’t ask.

Leaders still need to consult staff, communicate what they have heard, and explain what is possible and what is not, otherwise staff may feel even more frustrated and become less productive. Managers should approach the situation with the attitude of, “we are in this together, what can we do about it?.

Small business, high risk

Owners of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are an at-risk group when it comes to burnout. They experience higher levels of stress and mental health disorders compared to the general population. For wellbeing support for managers see:

Financial pressures, attracting and retaining good staff, an inability to switch off, time taken ensuring compliance and a keen sense of responsibility for the livelihood of their workers are stand-out themes.

Small business owners should prioritise their own self-care and reduce isolation by accessing professional support through business networks, mentoring or confiding in a fellow business owner. When someone is already on the brink of burnout, self-care is paramount.

Gaining perspective

For individuals at risk of burnout step back from your situation to get some perspective. Ask if your work situation is going to change, or if there is no end in sight for your intense workload. Also, ask if there is a match between your values and your organisation’s values.

Burnout is now classified as an occupational, not just an individual, issue. With pressure on businesses to survive disruption in a rapidly changing market, along with the fact that individual coping can only stretch so far, there’s never been a better time for companies to practise shared care for their employees.

Are you Burning Out?

Burnout isn’t just tiredness. Recognise the symptoms and identify where workplaces can help.

The Three Dimensions of Burnout

  1. Depletion or exhaustion, even on waking.
  2. Feeling distant or cynical: you are irritable or critical of co-workers, customers or clients. You feel disillusioned about your job and no longer care.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy: you lack satisfaction from your achievements, and you can see your performance slipping.

Symptoms can include:

Negative, cyclical thinking that leaves you believing there is nothing you can do to improve your situation.
Inability to focus, moments of indecision, loss of perspective.
Feeling overwhelmed, out of control, may cry easily.
Physical complaints such as headaches, digestive problems or flare-ups of inflammatory conditions.

How Workplaces can Help

Consult the experts: your staff know what requires changing.
Ensure good job fit: by conducting thorough job analysis and effective recruitment.
Develop staff: provide training and mentoring. Equip employees to do their job well.
Supportive leadership: support from direct supervisors is vital to job stress prevention.
Participatory decision-making: give workers a say about factors that affect them.
Recognise and reward people: let people know when they are performing to a required level, and how they can improve.
Clear communication: communicate one-to-one and across the organisation to make sure people have the information needed to do their job well.
Job clarity: give people a clear idea of what they are meant to be doing.
Justice: ensure fair resource distribution and transparent decision-making. Treat employees with respect.